Opioids work within the body by binding to the opioid receptors to stop the transmission of pain signals particularly within the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. They have analgesic effects that decrease pain and lower the reaction to pain which can lead to increased pain tolerance for the user. Although opioids are widely used in the medical field for the treatment of pain, there are many adverse side effects and dangers that can come from the continued or abusive use of these drugs.
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What are Opioids?
An opioid is a psychoactive drug that is derived from the opium poppy. The resulting medications are used for the treatment of pain. Opioids work by reducing the intensity of the pain signals that are sent to the brain resulting in a diminished pain stimulus. Some of the more common opioids include Oxycontin, Percocet and codeine but there are many others such as hydrocodone & morphine.
Opioids are some of the most commonly prescribed medications used for the treatment of pain. They are often prescribed following surgery, dental procedures and injury to alleviate mild to moderate or even severe pain. In some cases, opioids are even prescribed for the treatment of cough as well as severe diarrhea.
These medications fall into a class of controlled-substances that are considered relatively safe and which do not typically cause addiction if taken properly. Unfortunately, patients who take opioids are likely to develop a tolerance to the medication and may have to have their dose increased if they are to take the medication for a prolonged period of time. This can lead to an increased risk of addiction occurring.
How do Opioids Affect the Brain?
Opioids have various effects on the brain. They act by attaching to the opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract which reduces the ability of these receptors to perceive pain. Opioids have a relaxing effect that can lead to drowsiness, mental confusion, and depressed respiration. Opioids can actually cause long term changes in the way that the brain perceives pain by resulting in the complete discontinued development of endorphins which are the body’s natural defense against pain.
How do Opioids Affect the Body?
Opioids have various effects on the body. Initially, they cause reduced pain but they also have various other effects that can lead to nausea, vomiting, lowered body temperature and urinary urgency. Activating the opiate receptors can lead to various effects. Pain is typically under control when opioids are taken but in addition, the user may also experience other changes in appearance, comfort and reaction.
Opioids have the following effects on the body:
- Depressed cough reflexes occur
- Fluid retention as a result of the release of an antidiuretic hormone
- Lowered body temperature with normal dose and increased temperature which chronic use
- Histamine release which can lead to flushing of the skin, neck and face & itching
- Miosis which leads to pin point pupils
- Spasm of the bladder spnhicter
- Immunosuppression which leads to an increased risk of infections in some users
- Mental clouding
- Mood swings or mood changes
Opioid dependence occurs when opioids are taken for a prolonged period of time leading to tolerance and increased physical or psychological dependence. Dependence is a medical diagnosis that is characterized by showing at least three of the following six characteristics:
- Having a strong urge or craving to use the drug
- Finding it difficult to control drug use, level of drug use or the amount of drug use
- Using to avoid withdrawals or having physiological withdrawals when opioids are not used
- Increased tolerance to the drug
- Spending increased time getting opioids, doctor shopping, or otherwise taking part in drug related activities instead of things that were once considered fun
- Using opioids despite negative consequences such as legal problems, relationship problems, financial problems or health problems that have occurred
Opioid dependence is often caused as a result of a patient taking the drug for a legitimate problem with pain. Opioids are commonly prescribed for the treatment of pain and people often mistakenly think that they can be taken without risk of addiction or dependence. Unfortunately, many users who take opioids for acute pain find themselves suffering from opioid dependence and subsequent need for treatment of the addiction that occurs.
Morphine, codeine and other opioids are highly addictive substances that can lead to both physical and psychological dependence. When a person uses opioids they are at risk of becoming dependent on the drugs, developing an increased tolerance and requiring treatment for addiction. Many of the physical addiction side effects that result from taking opioids are long-lasting and difficult to treat.
When a user becomes addicted to an opioid, he or she will have a strong urge or desire to use the drug and may continue to use despite the known consequences that have come from the drug use. Opioid addiction doesn’t take prejudice and can impact anyone who takes the medication. Addiction to these drugs has impacted people from all income levels, socioeconomic statuses and every corner of the globe.
Often times, quitting opiates and opioids “cold turkey” simply is not an option due to the extreme withdrawal symptoms that can present when the drugs are abruptly removed from the system. Opioid withdrawal can lead to pain, discomfort and even medical complications and therefore should never be done alone. It’s important to have medical care and around-the-clock attention to ensure complete safety during opioid withdrawal.
Opioid withdrawal takes place when a user has become physically tolerant and dependent on opioids and then stops taking them. The symptoms of opioid withdrawal may be mild to moderate and often only last for a few days but in some cases, these symptoms can be rather severe and may even lead to life-threatening complications.
Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:
- Muscle aches
- Bone pain
- Increased tear production
- Runny nose and cold-like symptoms
- Goose bumps
- Dilated pupils
Most of the time, opioid withdrawal symptoms are just uncomfortable. In very rare cases, these symptoms can pose immediately health dangers to the individual and may require professional medical treatment. Often times, people who are prescribed opiates or opioids in a hospital setting and then return home will show these symptoms of withdrawal without even realizing that it’s withdrawal symptoms that they are suffering from. These people often mistake the withdrawal process as the flu due to the flu-like symptoms that appear.
Over the Counter Medications that Have Opioids
Many over-the-counter medications have opioids in them. Because of the risk of taking a medication that has an opioid in it while also taking prescribed opioids, it’s very important to check all labels and know what you are taking. Accidental overdose could occur if you take an over-the-counter medication that has an opioid in it while also taking opiates or opioids either as prescribed or for recreational use.
The following medications contain opioids or opiates:
- Loperamide also known as Imodium
- No other known United States over-the-counter medications contain opiates or opioids but some other countries do manufacture medicines that do have these substances in them.
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Signs of Opioid Addiction
Many different signs may become evident if a user becomes addicted to opioids. Some of the more common signs of opioid addiction include a loss of control over the drug use and intense cravings to use the drug but you may also notice other signs in a regular or chronic opiate or opioid user.
Signs of Opioid Use and Addiction Include:
- Denial that there is a problem or denying the drug use all together
- Lack of control over drug use despite decision to use less
- Lacking responsibility for important activities and obligations such as work, school or taking care of family
- Attempting to quit and being unsuccessful multiple times over again
- Using opioids despite known consequences financially, with family or friends, physically or psychologically
Types of Opioids
There are many common types of opioids that are prescribed by doctors to help patients by alleviating pain, reducing cough or treating opiate dependence. Some opioids are taken to feel normal while others may be prescribed to help the user reduce his or her use of dangerous street drugs such as heroin.
Some of the most common opioids include:
- Codeine such as Tylenol #3
Suboxone, which has the active opioid buprenorphine and methadone which has the opioid dolophine are both used in the treatment of opiate and opioid dependence. These medications are long-acting medications that can relieve the craving and urge to use other more dangerous opiates or opioids and reduce the physical dependence, criminal activity and overall addictive state of the user.
Dangers of Opioid Use
Not all people who use opioids will become physically dependent on the drugs or ever suffer from addiction let alone overdose. However, many people who abuse opioids will fall victim to the hurt and despair that results from opioid dependence. The dangers of opioid use can impact friends, family members, society and the user in various ways. Unfortunately, many don’t realize the dangers of opioid use until the painstaking impact of addiction has already begun to affect their lives.
People who take opioids and develop addiction to these drugs are at an increased risk of overdose related death. Additionally, many long term health effects are possible when opioids are used for a prolonged period of time. Some of these effects include a reduced ability to cope with pain, reduced natural production of endorphins and similar health complications related to the chemical changes that occur within the brain and the body as a result of taking opioids.
Treatment for Opioid Addiction
Many options for treatment are available to help those who become physically or psychologically addicted to opiates. Suboxone and methadone are commonly used in the treatment of opioid dependence but other options also exist including counseling & therapy. Behavioral therapy methods have proven effective when paired with other methods of treatment such as medication replacement or methadone maintenance therapy.
Naltrexone is often prescribed to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose but it can also be used in the treatment of opioid addiction. Buprenorphine is one of the newest medications to be used for the treatment of opiate addiction and also one of the more effective. This medication is a partial-agonist that works by bonding to the same receptors that heroin and other opioids bond to. It effectively eliminates cravings for such drugs without producing the euphoric “high” that a standard opioid would create.
Most of the time, medications are combined with behavioral treatments in order to provide the greatest benefit to the user. Outreach and support is also effective but again, most of the time, medication of some sort is necessary to effectively help patients remain abstinent from opioid use simply because of the chemical changes that occur within the brain from prolonged use of these drugs and the subsequent physical dependence that results from long-term opioid use.
If you suspect that someone you know is addicted to opioids such as heroin, morphine or a prescription painkiller, it’s important to seek treatment early on to prevent the risk of overdose or potentially fatal consequences from occurring. Treatment is available in many different formats including residential care, individual counseling, group counseling, behavioral therapy, outpatient treatment and various medication assisted treatment programs such as methadone maintenance or suboxone treatment options.
To learn more about opioid addiction treatment options, or for help finding a program near you, call 800-584-3274.